Guitar players can debate about single coils and humbuckers for days, but will seldom talk about high or low output Strat pickups. Often overlooked, pickup output is an essential detail that musicians should be aware of, since it could vastly affect your tone.
Since the pickup was introduced in the early 20th century, we have seen it evolve along with various styles of music and the influence it had on modern culture is undeniably monumental. This led to throngs of guitarists all over the world to obsess over the type of pickups that they need to have on their instruments, in order for them to achieve a specific sound.
Whether it’s the bright, twangy sound of country hero Jimmy Bryant, or the fat, warm tone of versatile guitarist/innovator Les Paul, there is no stopping six-stringed slingers from acquiring their needed guitar pickups to emulate their idols.
However, very few guitar players are mindful of their instrument’s pickup output and this could sometimes create disappointment among axemen. Not knowing how this factor could determine their tone, many guitarists have resorted to replacing their pickups, or even their guitars, just because they couldn’t get their desired sound.
A basic understanding of output can help guitar players discern the varying characteristics of pickups to give you an expectation of how they will sound. Knowledge of pickup output will help you make better decisions when you are choosing your guitar, or planning to change your existing pickups.
Pickup output and how it affects your tone
Pickup output, which is commonly expressed in ohms (the unit of measurement for electrical resistance), can have a substantial impact on your guitar tone. Pickups are usually within the 6k-20k ohm range and as a rule of thumb, the higher the DC resistance, the more output the pickups are.
Strat pickups are mostly low output. One listen and you can immediately distinguish it from other guitars with high output pickups.
High output vs low output pickups: an overview
High output pickups
Basically, high output pickups have more windings and higher resistance, which causes your guitar sound to have more mids and lows, but less highs.
High output pickups are hotter and they can also produce a little distortion even if your amplifier is set to clean. High output pickups such as Seymour Duncan’s Invader, is the best option if you play heavier music, especially for those in the metal domain.
There are also ways to utilize high output pickups without creating unwanted distortion. By plugging in directly to a mixing console, or using amps that are designed to not distort (e.g. Roland Jazz Chorus), you can achieve a clean sound with high output pickups.
Low output pickups
One of the main advantages of low output pickups is the broader dynamic range and sustain that it can offer. Vintage and medium output pickups also belong to the lower end of the output spectrum, making them a standard among blues, country, rock and soul guitar players.
Low output pickups often produce much clearer tones that allow listeners to hear even the individual notes of overdriven chord patterns. Since low output pickups have been around much longer than its high output counterpart, a huge portion of the most iconic recordings from the past century employed guitars that were equipped with lower output pickups.
The distinctive brilliance and presence of low output Strat pickups is definitely a powerful driving force in the development of rock and roll, as well as pop and soul music. However, just like high output pickups, the usage of these devices aren’t limited to any kind of music genre.
Are low output pickups better for Stratocasters?
There is no absolute winner when it comes to pitting low output pickups against high output pickups, because it all depends on the needs of a musician. Whatever type of music you choose to focus on, will be the main deciding factor in whether you will go for low output or high output pickups.
That being said, low output pickups are the perfect fit for Stratocasters. If you want to enjoy that bright tone that most guitar players seek for in a Strat, then low output is your best option. The presence of a pickup in the 6-8k range sounds great on vintage guitars as well, especially for those who wish to copy that brilliant and chunky Jimi Hendrix sound that made the Stratocaster famous.
However, this doesn’t mean that high output pickups should only be used on guitars that are known for producing darker sounds. Some guitar players who prefer warmer tones but own a Strat, can opt for high output pickups to get their desired sound, without changing their guitar.
Feel try to experiment on high output pickups if your style calls for this kind of setup. But if your Strat already has a low output pickup, there is a chance that you will fall in love with the tone of your guitar right out of the box.